By CAROL BENFELL THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Sports fishermen in California may soon feel another kind of bite, as regulators move to curtail the catch of rockfish, sometimes called red snapper.
Federal officials are eyeing regulations that would require party boat captains to install satellite signaling devices on their vessels, so wardens can tell if they motor into the new no-fish zones, where most rockfish are found.
And the state Fish and Game Commission may drastically reduce the number and kinds of rockfish that can be caught, as well as the length of the fishing season, when it meets in Crescent City later this week.
The tough new restrictions are the latest in a series of moves by state and federal agencies to protect seven species of rockfish that have been overfished nearly to the point of extinction.
Biologists say it will take decades for the slow-growing species to rebuild, but the effort to save them is already having a dramatic impact on the sports fishing industry.
Bodega Bay party boat skipper Wil Morrow applauded the efforts to restore the fishery, but said a shortened rockfish season would cost him about $250,000 in lost trips.
"We're going to have to tighten our belts, but we'll still be here," Morrow said. "We'll be doing a lot of whale watching trips and bird watching trips and we'll be making two trips a day for Dungeness crab."
The proposed restrictions on sports fishing will cost Northern California coastal communities more than $1.7 million a year in lost revenues, said Terry Tillman, a fishery economist for the Department of Fish and Game.
Federal and state fishery regulators have tightened up on rockfishing in recent years, but without much effect on the declining fish populations.
As a result, the federal Pacific Fisheries Management Council last month took the unprecedented step of banning almost all sports and commercial rockfishing in prime rockfish habitat -- waters between 120 feet and 900 feet deep.
The action created a law enforcement nightmare. Until now, Fish and Game has monitored the fishery primarily by collecting reports on trips and landings. Now the agency must also find a way to monitor where the fish are caught.
Since it's impossible to put an observer on every boat, the Pacific Council is interested in a vessel monitoring system that would keep track of commercial and sports fishing boats by satellite.
A location signaling device would cost fishing boat owners between $600 and $5,000, although the council may decide to reimburse them for some or all of the cost.
The tracking devices could be mandatory by July 1, the start of the 2003 rockfish season, on the 450 most productive commercial fishing boats, said James Seger, an economic analysis coordinator at state Fish and Game.
The monitors may also be required on the rest of the commercial fleet and on party boats within the next few years, he said.
"There's a presumption that 95 percent of the folks out there are good, honest people and are going to comply with the regulations. The question is how to detect the others," Seger said.
The state Fish and Game Commission, which meets on Thursday, is considering a complicated set of new regulations that it hopes will help rockfish stocks rebuild and still allow as much sport and commercial fishing as possible.
The draft regulations would reduce the rockfishing season to six months a year, from July 1 to Dec. 31. Previously, party boats enjoyed an eight-month season, while anglers could fish from the shore year-round.
The daily bag limits would also be reduced, under the draft regulations. Formerly, fishermen were allowed a daily catch of 10 rockfish or 10 cabezon or 10 greenlings, with a total daily limit of 20 fish.
The proposed regulations would allow only 10 rockfish daily, including a maximum of three cabezon or two greenlings within that 10-catch limit.
The proposed regulations would apply to California south of Cape Mendocino. There are no anticipated changes north of Cape Mendocino, which is near Eureka.
A look at proposed regulations
If adopted, proposed regulations before the state Fish and Game Commission will require sports fishermen to know more about the fish they catch than ever before.
"It will be a very different way of thinking when they toss their line off the boat or off the shore," said Marci Yuremko, who is with Fish and Game's marine regulatory unit.
Under the draft regulations:
The bag limit for groundfish and rockfish would be combined. The daily limit would be 10 groundfish/rockfish, including no more than three cabezon and two greenlings. Last year 10 cabezon and 10 greenlings could be caught daily.
A maximum of two shallow nearshore rockfish can be caught daily, and their take must be included in the 10-rockfish/groundfish limit. Last year, there was no distinction between shallow nearshore rockfish and other rockfish species.
"Shallow nearshore rockfish" include the black and yellow, china, grass, gopher and kelp rockfish.
The daily limit of two lingcod more than 24 inches long remains unchanged from last year. Lingcod catches are not counted as part of the groundfish daily limit.
The daily bag limit for fish of all species is still 20.
If the regulations are adopted, state Fish and Game will get out fliers and a revised sport fishing handbook as quickly as possible, Yuremko said.